WASHINGTON — Jobs. For the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, they are the bottom line. Americans everywhere are asking: If Congress approves the pact in 1993, will I have a job in 1994?
Advocates say NAFTA, which would eliminate tariffs on virtually all goods traded between the United States, Mexico and Canada, would create hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans.
Wrong, say the opponents: NAFTA would cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs as manufacturers relocate plants south of the border, where cheap labor could make goods for duty-free export to the United States.
In the Alice-in-Wonderland landscape created by NAFTA, both sides are probably right. Congress, which is scheduled to vote on the agreement this week, is listening to the contrasting voices of Americans at work.
Here is one working American: Donald Grindle, a 13-year veteran in the Atlanta Saw Co.'s parts department. Grindle has high hopes that the trade deal, by eliminating the limits that Mexico now places on foreign-made saws, will be a boon for him and his fellow workers.
"We ship lots of stuff out of the U.S.," he said. "About 75% of our saws are exported--to Russia, China and other places. We ship them finished products. I guess Mexico is about the only country where we can't ship finished products. So I'm sure NAFTA will help in the long run."
And here is another: Joe Wells III, executive vice president, general manager and self-described "chief cook and bottle-washer" of the Homer Laughlin Glass Co., which has been making clay-based products in and around Newell, W. Va., for 122 years.
It is a labor-intensive business; 60% of his costs pay the salaries of the workers who this year will turn out 144 million plates and bowls for homes, restaurants and medical clinics. Wells, the fourth generation of his family to run the company, would not pull up stakes easily.
"I've got an obligation to my community," he said. "We're fighting hard to create jobs in West Virginia. We've spent a lot of money to modernize. Our work force is trained. I believe in the American workers. They're probably the most trained, talented work force in the world."
Then along came NAFTA, which would wipe out the 35% duty that, Wells says, keeps his company competitive in the U.S. market with manufacturers from Europe and the Pacific Rim. Without that tariff, he fears, competitors would build plants in Mexico and ship their products duty-free into the United States.
"If that tariff is eliminated, the competition would just drive us out of business," he said. "We're very loyal to the area we live in. But the bottom line is this: If I have no choices left to me, am I going to go overseas? Am I going to go to Mexico? The answer is yes. We want the company to survive."
Most analysts say they believe that there are more Atlanta Saw companies than there are Homer Laughlin Glass companies. On the whole, they say, NAFTA would create more American jobs than it would destroy.
But they would be different jobs.
Potential new workers for the Atlanta Saw Co. do not know who they are. And if Congress approves NAFTA, those who get jobs there probably won't know even then that the trade agreement deserves the credit.
Workers at Homer Laughlin Glass, by contrast, already know that NAFTA will be responsible if the company flees to Mexico. For them, it will be little consolation that Atlanta Saw is taking on new employees hundreds of miles away.
And that is precisely why NAFTA is generating so much controversy. It helps explain why lawmakers like California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are dead set against NAFTA even though most studies show that California would enjoy a net gain in employment if the agreement is approved. It explains why most labor unions oppose NAFTA even though they might well enjoy an overall gain in membership.
By economic sector, the big winners would include manufacturers that rely on higher-skilled labor that is hard to match in Mexico. By bringing down tariffs on U.S.-made goods, NAFTA would open new markets for American high-tech manufacturers and exporters of consumer goods.
Also standing to gain are producers of other goods that, for whatever reason, Mexico can't match. In this category are apple producers from Washington state; even with a 20% tariff, Washington's apple exports to Mexico have leaped from 575,000 boxes to 6 million boxes in just three years.
"In smaller communities that's a lot of jobs in orchards, in packing plants, in more truck drivers," said Jim Thomas, a spokesman for the Washington Apple Commission.
The losers would be concentrated at the lower end of the skill spectrum, where jobs are already disappearing due to a combination of automation and cheap foreign labor. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, for example, predicts that 500,000 U.S. jobs will disappear over the next five years if the trade pact is enacted.